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So I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the UK’s departure from the European Union doesn’t seem to be an easy process. In the past three years, many a metaphor have been used to describe it, including that of a game of poker, a cake and a costly divorce. Additionally, the phrase ‘no deal’ hasn’t been banded around this much since the (second) heyday of Noel Edmonds.

Whatever people choose to refer to it as, we can all agree that Brexit is complicated, and, as we have seen from the negotiating process, time consuming, taking up the lion’s share of discussions regarding business, policymaking and daily life.

However, the all-encompassing nature of Brexit means that issues pressing to the economy, such as the progression of UK industry into the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) which is rapidly gaining momentum elsewhere, are falling by the wayside.


Talkin’ bout a revolution

First and foremost, technologies of the 4th Industrial Revolution can help to improve productivity in firms, an issue that is of vital importance given the stagnating performance of UK productivity over the past decade. Many businesses have been engaging in the technological advancements associated with 4IR for quite some time, although often not under the label of 4IR, as a means of engaging in business improvements through technology.

However, despite increased awareness in the past few years, such as within the government’s Made Smarter review and subsequent funding programmes to increase the adoption of Industrial Digital Technologies within manufacturing, the UK is still behind some international peers in metrics for adoption of, and readiness for, 4IR.

The Economist
’s 2018 Automation Readiness Index ranked the UK behind countries such as South Korea, Germany, and Singapore. The report noted that the priorities of the Industrial Strategy and digital strategies such as AI and robotics R&D were a strong point for the UK, but highlighted weaknesses in areas such as the need to support lifelong learning.

Lookin’ for a leader

With Brexit taking up such a large proportion of UK policymaking time, it is important that the country not only takes steps to improve adoption, and but aims to become a global leader of 4IR technologies and techniques, so as to raise productivity levels and avoid falling further behind competitors.

Make UK's Manufacturing Outlook 2019 Q3 shows that investment intentions have continued to fall, meaning that despite the desire to invest in these technologies, manufacturers are not doing so at ideal levels.

The UK economy is globalised in nature and there will be an inevitable shift in the way that our economy interacts with others. Because of this, it is vitally important to continue to improve all component parts of our economy, manufacturing being one of the most important, to ensure that it remains competitive post Brexit.

So what are we waiting for?

Some industrial digital technologies such as collaborative robots (cobots), automated processes and AI can help to support existing workforces, allowing employees to work collaboratively with technology, particularly on tasks that are repetitive and low skilled, allowing them to focus on the more knowledge based elements of their roles. However, the current political landscape means that too often, these technologies are not being adopted in industry as quickly as they should be.

Whatever metaphor is most appropriate for the daily developments in Brexit, the UK has an opportunity now more than ever to take full advantage of the opportunities that 4IR offers.

Rather than getting through the global race by focussing solely on trying to jump the Brexit shaped hurdle, the country can find its way to the top of the group in 4IR and become the leader of the pack. Either that or a mix of other metaphors that represent a risk to global competitiveness in business, a continuation of flat-lining productivity levels and the chance of being left behind in the current industrial revolution after being a world leader in the previous three.

It’s possible that if we get too distracted by the 'B' word, after it’s all said and done, we may have missed an important opportunity to improve productivity and the economy.